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OP-ED: Two strong picks for community colleges and CSU
October 13, 2012, 05:00 AM

Leaders of California’s community college and state university systems have appointed two highly accomplished leaders, who face daunting challenges as they set about reshaping these vital institutions but seem up to the task.

The California State University board of trustees recently named Timothy P. White as the new president of the CSU system, the nation’s largest four-year university system.

White is chancellor at UC Riverside, among the most diverse campuses in the state. He raised $100 million for a new medical school at Riverside, a skill he will need as he takes charge of the 23-campus CSU system. White is a serious academic, but showed an every-man side by appearing in disguise last year on "Undercover Boss.”

Earlier, the Community College System’s leaders appointed Brice Harris as that system’s chancellor. Harris is outgoing chancellor of the Sacramento region’s Los Rios Community College district. Harris labels the challenges twin opportunities: Restore access to the state’s community colleges, and help students succeed in greater numbers.

Harris, like White, faces a daunting reality. Today, only 53.6 percent of degree-seeking community college students achieve a certificate, degree or transfer within six years. For African American and Latino students, the rate is much lower, 42 percent and 43 percent, respectively.

Budget cuts have forced the CSU system to raise tuition. At the community college system enrollment has dropped from 2.9 million to 2.4 million students. There are fewer course sections and more than a doubling of fees.

Harris comes into the chancellorship of a confederation of 72 community college districts at 112 campuses with 72 locally elected boards with the right attitude, tight focus and groundwork laid for major change — groundwork that he helped lay as a member of last year’s Student Success Task Force.

One major change, as Harris has put it, is to "dial down” free non-credit classes like yoga or music appreciation, and focus on preparing students for transfers to a university or earning an associate degree.

Another is to give students an incentive to move away from unfocused course-taking and into specific programs of study that lead to a college credential or transfer to four-year institutions by tying financial aid to academic progress.

More than 1 million of 2.4 million students have their fees waived. But unlike federal Pell Grants and state Cal Grants, community colleges do not require academic progress. That will change with Gov. Jerry Brown’s signing of SB 1456. Fee waivers will be cut for students who fall below certain requirements for two semesters in a row.

Harris minces no words about access: "We can’t restore access unless we have adequate resources.” He seeks to end the roller coaster of fee increases, which makes it difficult for students and their parents to plan for college. To that end, he is open to gradual "modest and predictable” fee increases within a long-term fee policy.

In keeping the community college chancellor’s salary under $200,000 — holding to the previous chancellor’s salary of $198,500 — the community college board of governors sent a message of public service.

Similarly, the California State University trustees set White’s salary at that of the outgoing president, $421,500 plus a $30,000 supplement from CSU Foundation sources.

Leaders of the two systems took important steps into the future by elevating Harris and White, and sent messages to students and parents about the importance of fiscal restraint and of building from within.

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